Artist Robert Zakanitch

Icon of contemporary art captures dogs’ “aggressive goodness”
By Cameron Woo, November 2009, Updated June 2021

Contemporary artist Robert Zakanitch first reached critical acclaim in the 1970s in New York City as one of the founders of the pattern and decorative movement. His paintings are now in the permanent collections of many major museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, and have been exhibited around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. As with his famous paintings of pattern and decoration, his dog paintings reveal that art can lift the human spirit. His illustrations will appear in Good Dog, published by Knopf Books for Young Readers in January 2005.

Bark: I’m an admirer of your earlier pattern painting, the large, beautifully painted canvases inspired by lace and fabric. Tell me about your new dog paintings.

Zakanitch: The philosopher Arthur Danto (art critic for The Nation) wrote in the catalog for the show that the dog paintings and the work I was doing before is all about pattern and decoration. It goes back to a real confrontation with minimalism—in reaction, I wanted to make things that were about beauty and sentimentality. More about caring and, basically, civility, getting back to the human being again.

If you remember the Sixties, art became so intellectual that you either had to be a scholar or an art student to understand what was being done. And it was completely escaping the audience, and I thought this is absurd, this isn’t what art’s about. Art’s about relating to the audience, not excluding them and telling them they’re stupid, which is what that part had become.


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So the work that became the pattern-ornamentation movement was about gentility and sentimentality. And the dogs, for me, are precisely that, only it goes from civility one step further inward to compassion, which is what I think dogs have. I mean dogs live for love. It’s such a vital part of us as well … it’s going to make us evolve, it’s going to save the world—if everybody can deal with their own compassion.

Bark: When someone chooses dogs as subject matter, that subject matter brings with it all sorts of emotions and connections, but you seem to have treated the subject in a formal sense without regard to capturing the dog’s personality.

Zakanitch: Artists basically have these tools, which are line, form, color and scale. These paintings are five feet by seven—scale is a very important part of my work. This gave me an opportunity to use all of these elements at the same time. They remain about painting, the purity of painting; they are about all of those things that I’ve learned as a painter, from formalism to abstract expressionism. And also, emotionally, they were all right on target for me. I don’t find them that much separate from the other work.

Bark: Who are the subjects for the paintings?

Zakanitch: Oh, they’re made up. I looked at lots of photographs and I would start drawing. Every dog I’d look at I’d fall in love with. So I’d start drawing them from different angles—top, bottom, ground level and above—until I could draw that dog without looking at a photograph. Then I just kind of knew the dog backwards and forwards, and would start the painting. I had all these little studies and drawings and would just transfer them onto the other side of the canvas, letting you see all the mistakes—all the erasures and the painting over, because that’s all part of the process. I love process in painting—there’s something exciting about that.

Bark: You chose to name the series “Aggressive Goodness” …

Zakanitch: I love these words. “Aggressive Goodness” is exactly what a dog is … very aggressive and still all about goodness. And so it’s kind of like “in your face” sentimentality. My work has always been full of irony and contradiction, but irony can go just so far and then I’m not interested in irony anymore. It’s why I think the “Aggressive Goodness” series is different, because there’s no irony in this work. It is really what you see is what you see.

Bark: Some research turned up biblical references to “aggressive goodness” as well as sources in Eastern philosophy.

Zakanitch: You know, I don’t have a connection to any of that. It’s a philosophy that I’ve got about the societies we’re all living in. All societies are basically dealing with the whole patriarchal attitude, which is all about kind of a machismo and power. Anything else, somehow, isn’t taken seriously. Gentility and sweetness are always considered inferior; in men, those qualities are considered weaknesses. I just got so sick of that way of thinking, and I felt that these are really powerful things in us and you don’t walk away from gentility, you don’t walk away from compassion or sentimentality—they tell us who we are.

Something happened to me after 9/11 that was really interesting. After feeling terrible for days, I just had this incredible burst of creativity and I knew it was right. I just thought … I have to start mending this firmament that’s been absolutely torn to shreds and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them do that. So I started writing to friends and saying, now’s the time to really start being creative because this is really important. This is vital and essential—a real confrontation and one way of dealing with it.

Bark: I’m struck by the noble mission you entrust to art.

Zakanitch: My task as an artist is to plant seeds by my paintings (and children’s books) to create balance in this world by attempting to mend this constantly shredded firmament. I cannot think of anything of greater importance. For me, it is about evolution through the awareness of art, our humaneness and compassion.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 27: Summer 2004

Cameron Woo is co-founder of The Bark magazine, and was its Publisher for over two decades. He was also the magazine’s Art Director.